Choosing a computer – Mac? Windows? Netbook? Laptop?

These days most university departments provide at least some basic computing facilities for their students, but most students also want to have their own computer for all-night last-minute essay-writing sessions and/or illegally downloading episodes of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ or ‘Jersey Shore’ (depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on) outside their university’s firewall. Not that I would ever condone or seek to promote such activity, oh no. Anyway, computers are cheap nowadays, but they still represent a major investment for most students, so here is my advice on the matter. All opinions are mine alone, your mileage may vary etc. etc. Feel free to flame me in the comments if you feel I’ve unjustifiably dissed your favourite OS, or whatever.

The initial decision you need to make is which operating system takes your fancy most – and there are really only two options – Macintosh OS X or Microsoft Windows.* A lot of people get very excited by the Windows vs. Mac issue and Mac users in particular seem to have a genuine and somewhat creepy devotion to their chosen OS. My take though, is that the latest version of both (Windows 7 and OS X 10.6) are excellent, and either one will do everything you could possibly want. I regularly use both and have very little issue with switching between the two pretty much seamlessly. Nowadays, you can even install Windows natively on Mac hardware, so you could potentially buy a MacBook and use it purely as a Windows machine. If you were some kind of pervert.

A brief aside – for by far the most entertaining take on the whole Mac vs. Windows issue see these three articles by Charlie Brooker in the Guardian from 2007, 2009 and 2011. I love the man. He’s definitely right about one thing – Dr Who would use a PC. Though even Doctor Who probably couldn’t get Windows Vista to work well.

Annnnyway… There’s one thing which does distinguish a Windows PC from a Mac which is likely to be important for most students, and that’s the price. You’re looking at close to $1000/£1000 for the lowest-priced MacBook pro model, whereas you could get a very, very capable PC laptop for half that, or even less. It’s not that Macs are bad value-for-money at all – they are very, very good computers, and a Windows machine with similar specifications and build quality would cost the same, or even more, it’s just that Apple don’t make lower-priced, lower-quality models. They’re machined out of one solid-piece of aluminium, have a multi-touch trackpad, the keyboards are the best I’ve ever seen on a laptop, and the battery lasts for 8 hrs – you just don’t get that kind of thing on a cheap Windows machine. I use a Mac laptop because it’s the one machine out there that can do anything – it can run the unix applications (since OS X is built on a unix core) that I need natively, and can also run the PC applications I need through dual-booting, or with the excellent Parallels emulation software. If you can afford one, you’re unlikely to regret buying one.** I would think that most students would prefer a laptop to a desktop system, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro is an excellent choice. The plastic MacBook is slightly cheaper, but you want the aluminium unibody don’t you? Of course you do… The 15 and 17-inch versions seem too big and heavy to be portable to me, but if you prefer a larger screen then go for it. The MacBook Air might seem attractive (it is incredibly, seductively, naughtily slim and sexy) but they’re quite underpowered by modern standards and lack an optical drive and a decent number of ports; depends how concerned you are about looking achingly cool while taking notes in your lectures. If you do decide to go with an Apple machine, remember to apply for the student discount, or check with your department to see if they can buy one for you at the educational discount rate – you can usually save 10-15%. Nice. You could also save a few bucks by picking one up from the Apple Refurbished store or even off eBay – caveat emptor, of course.

If you’re short of cash, or want to stick to Windows for other reasons, there are then a bewildering variety of options available. This is not the place to cover all the various combinations of hardware that runs Windows, but I’ll give you some general principles. First of all – netbooks. Avoid. Any of the various iterations of the Asus EEE PCs, the Dell Mini 10 series, that kind of thing – avoid, avoid, avoid. Yes, they’re ridiculously cheap, but there’s a reason for that – they’re rubbish. Cheap, under-powered components, a nasty plasticky finish, and unusable trackpads. They’re fine for what they are – an ultraportable machine for occasional checking of emails and surfing the net when you’re out and about. If you’re thinking of buying one as your ‘main’ machine though – don’t. You will very quickly get wrist-slashingly annoyed by the tiny cramped-up keyboard and the pokey low-resolution screen. Some of the newer models out there (like the HP DM1Z) have upgraded processors and graphics cards, and do perform better, but the screen and keyboard size is still too small for serious work.

Beyond that, the exact choice you make will depend on a number of trade-offs – portability vs. usability and performance vs. price being the two most important ones. A 13″ screen is the minimum for doing any serious work, and the larger you can go the better for working, but not for lugging around. Almost any modern full-size laptop will have more than enough RAM, hard-drive memory, and processor speed  for doing basic stuff like writing essays – 3-4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard-drive should be more than enough for all the but the most intensive of tasks (if you want to edit 1080p videos or play Crysis at full-res, then you’ll probably already know that you’ll need to spend a bit more). Dual-core processors are pretty-much standard now, and the reasonably-cheap Intel Core i3 and i5’s are more than capable of handling most things you’re likely to throw at them. It’s hard to give specific recommendations on models or manufacturers as a) they change so regularly, and b) everyone has their favourite brand. Dell is supposed to have excellent customer service, Sony build quality is apparently a notch above the rest (although they’re a little more expensive), but all these things are essentially personal preference. Just go and find one that you like, or find one that’s the right price.

For the new breed of tablet computers (the iPad, Motorola Xoom, any of the gazillion Android tablets that are coming out soon), see the remarks for netbooks above – but they apply even more so. These devices are intended to be supplementary to a ‘main’ computer. Yes, you might look desperately cool whipping out an iPad in your lecture, but try taking notes on it using that onscreen keyboard for more than five minutes – urgh.

All this advice changes (again) if you’re a researcher looking for a lab-machine that’s going to be used for running experiments. Then you probably want a desktop system, and to be honest, the best choice of OS is likely to be the ten-year-old Windows XP. It’s not pretty, but it’s solid as a rock, you can find drivers for anything for it, and it makes relatively low demands on the processor and memory (important if you’re running timing-critical stuff). Also, you can still get desktop systems with parallel and serial port interfaces – which is important for interfacing with external bits of gear, like eye-tracking cameras. Unless you are planning on presenting some uncompressed HD videos in pin-sharp digital crikey-vision as part of your experiment, pretty much any middle of the line or even budget desktop system will do the job.

Hope that was helpful to somebody – feel free to vent your spleen (or any other organ) in the comments section.


*Yes, I know there’s also all the various flavours of Linux, and other bits of OS exotica out there, but unless you enjoy learning a billion abstruse Unix shell commands and staying up all night trying to find drivers to get your wireless network card working properly then they’re probably best avoided.

**If you’re a hard-core gamer reading this, then it all changes – you need a PC.


About Matt Wall

I do brains. BRAINZZZZ.

Posted on May 15, 2011, in Hardware and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I just found this website very interesting for me, I will bookmark it to come back again.Thanks for your helpfull tips,Cheers!

  2. I use a Mac laptop because it’s the one machine out there that can do anything – it can run the unix applications (since OS X is built on a unix …

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